Four Tet, Tempodrom, Berlin (2023)
Photo: Ana Yorke

Four Hours of Four Tet in Berlin Reminds What Clubbing Is For

Four Tet’s four-hour party at Tempodrom shows that clubbing in Berlin is a profoundly communal affair, a social ritual of the highest order.

To say there’s “something” between electronic music superstars and Berin is almost crassly coy. The German capital has been known as one of the more prominent clubbing localities globally for decades, with electronic music vibing at the forefront of how most people of varied ages spend their nights out. Exploring and debating the historicities behind this phenomenon is beyond our scope here, so let’s just accept the indubitable – decks and mixers are like water and air to Berliners from all walks of life. 

Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, is well aware of this. His year-long intent on doing an “exclusive” Berlin show, with light installations by the art collective Squidsoup, while flashy, is far from a novelty for the capital of beats. Aphex Twin, who has barely appeared live in the past ten years, hosted a spectacular night at the legendary Funkhaus in 2018, just as Oneohtrix Point Never did, with a killer live band. There’s the decade-long Berlin residency of Daniel W. Best, who’s been teaming up with some of the biggest names in techno and house, like Carl Craig and Masters at Work, or the annual Boiler Room extravaganzas for lovers of harder sound. Word on the street has it there have been secret and private A-list DJ appearances for invite-only clientele the press wasn’t even informed about. If I hadn’t been to a few of those (albeit not in Germany), I wouldn’t believe the convulsive watercooler chatter of frazzled cottonmouth insiders on Monday mornings. 

Alas, the first two dates scheduled for the exclusive Four Tet bash were canceled due to the pandemic, but you already know how the old adage on charms goes. About six months ago, it was finally confirmed that a one-off four-hour set will take place at Tempodrom on 25 November. It’s a slightly odd choice of venue that proved perfect for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.  

I have written about Tempodrom already: the 4,000-capacity, 120-feet tall arena shaped like a circus tent has been a Berlin staple for decades, hosting acts ranging from Christmas orchestras to standup comedians. Conveniently versatile when it comes to indoor seating or standing capacity, it’s no stranger to electronic music performances, such as Röyksopp earlier this year. However, the announcement of a DJ set, where Four Tet would mix in the center of the venue, with thousands standing and sitting (?!) around him, raises some eyebrows. After all, this is a “concert” venue; would a DJ all-nighter even work there? Could it be transformed into a straight party arena? 

The answer is a resounding “yes”, as both Four Tet and Berliners know what they are doing. The end result is a magnificent night of myth-busting for the foreign onlookers or clubbing noobs, i.e., business as usual for the locals. Around 7:30 pm, half an hour before the show is due to start, hundreds of guests congregate outside the dome to queue over beers and cigarettes. The venue is almost sold out, so there’s plenty of time to catch up with friends while in line. A very small number appears intoxicated, though one would be remiss not to note the imprudence of arriving high to a four-hour gig if you know what I mean.

That said, the majority is shockingly plain-looking, workaday even. They are also, on average, well over 30, with a sizeable number of middle-aged, grey-haired urbanites wearing earth tones. If you didn’t know there was an IDM event about to begin inside, you’d think the folks have shown up to a Jonathan Franzen book promo. This, in short, is the embodiment of Berlin’s party culture: clubbing is not something that just libidinous, belligerent students or frivolous subcultures do. On the contrary, going out is a profoundly communal affair in Berlin, a social ritual of the highest order. All ages, backgrounds, and domains are welcome—business as usual. 

That’s not to say the casual complacency that goes with attending high-profile cultural events isn’t there. “How immersive is it?” asks a young woman in a rastacap her friend in an oversized trenchcoat. It’s a DJ set with a relatively modest light show. Allowing for differences in definition, it’s still not particularly “immersive”. It is, however, wonderfully engaging for these diverse folk who show up to dance, chill, or just enjoy meeting up with friends over beers. Four hours is twice the length of an average set, so anything goes, really. Half the folks hadn’t even shown up until an hour into the performance. Dinner plans, likely. 

Photo: Ana Yorke

Inside, just before 8:00 pm, things are uncannily tame. About half of the audience is sitting in the stands (I am yet to get over that detail in this context), quietly chatting over beers or gin tonics; the other half is squeezing all around the centrally positioned decks, eager for their indie electronic idol to show up. A 4,000-capacity venue would be a considerable challenge for most DJs (unless tasked with a hangar rave dope-galore), except Four Tet is not your average track spinner. 

Recognized two decades ago as one of the experimental cum indie cum melodic electronic greats, Four Tet is revered as a deck generalist whose work ranges from outstanding LPs (Rounds remains around the top of my all-time favorite albums) to remixes and cutting-edge club sets. A rare household name outside the electro scene, he’s been included in eight “best of” lists on PopMatters alone. Four Tet’s list of collaborators is as versatile as his endeavors: Thom Yorke, Burial, Bicep, and Laurie Anderson are but a few who have joined forces with the London-bred musician to enhance contemporary electro soundscaping.

Accustomed to enormous successes and crowds, Four Tet most recently collaborated with producing giants Skrillex and Fred Again; the trio performed a five-hour sold-out set at Madison Square Garden in February 2023, along with a headlining gig at Coachella the following April, where their “Pangbourne House Mafia” filled in for Frank Ocean. Suffice it to say, a few thousand Berliners wouldn’t scare this veteran, who discreetly steps on stage exactly at 8:00 pm, irreverently blasting “Tiger Bones” by Joni Mitchell.

The audience greets him with enthusiasm but then mostly goes back to babbling or languid swinging. The tempo picks up quickly, with tracks by low-key club or Resident Advisor favorites such as Marc Marzennit and Varhat, but the dim blue lighting remains throughout the first hour, with the body count only gradually increasing. Some 30 minutes in, Johnny Calypso’s “Teenager 2K15” mix finally gets the lazies upstairs to line up around the rails and dance, and, with help from Four Tet’s own “Angel Echoes” and a mean remix of Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself”, by 9:00 pm, Tempodrom starts to look like a proper club. 

At the turn of the hour, the suffocating blue hue is replaced with bright red lights and moving (dancing) white rays, with more techno or harder house beats pumping. As the venue reaches capacity, sweat and screams permeate all 120 feet up. We step outside to get refills, thinking the stands will be empty, only to find a parallel shindig in and around Tempodrom hallways. At least a couple hundred people queue for popcorn and pretzels (don’t forget this is Germany we are talking about), with a couple hundred more huddling outside for a smoke or in the indoor atrium over drinks. Far from disrespectful to the artist, this nonchalance only underscores how “clubbing” transcends clichés of belligerent youth on steroids and serves as the perfect social adhesive for those looking for both a good time and a batch of new tunes to soak up or explore. 

Inside, the sweating and jiving intensifies. Around 9:30 pm, those savvy enough to have saved their drugs to stay high for the climax are cruising to some Josh Butler and Champion mixes. Perhaps surprisingly, “Baby”, Four Tet’s biggest hit of the past five years, drops before 10 pm, sending us all into a frenzy of cries. As the set progresses, the lights become brighter, the dancing grittier, and the beats quicker. Everyone from 18 to over 70 (true story) seems to be having a damn good time, and I can only confirm that the track listing was solid, if a bit minimalist for my taste. 

Someone recently complained on Twitter how it’s sad people essentially stopped going to clubs to discover new music, but in Berlin, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Shazam app lights up on every other phone across the arena. The takeaways from Four Tet’s show are all-around positive, though I do regret, perhaps greatly so, not hearing more of Four Tet’s own music that night. The unhinged screams that accompanied his few tracks were indicative of others’ preferences as well. As one of this century’s most revered and versatile producers, Hebden has a lot to offer. With four hours on the podium, he could have easily seasoned his set with more hits, but this time, we mostly got some thick house-ish techno.

Nobody seems to be complaining, though. As oversized as Tempodrom seems for a DJ, on this occasion, Four Tet demonstrated that a smaller venue would be inappropriate for an artist of his status, regardless of the mode of sound production. Toward the final act, I detect some Burial in the mix as the masses melt together, waving around in unison. It’s a marvelous, unrelenting party that will only keep escalating until midnight. Nevertheless, it is 11 pm, and we have to get some sleep, as Sunday morning is reserved for Christmas markets. I did tell you that in Berlin, we treat clubbing differently.